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Can I Sue My Kid’s School Because She Got Hurt While Playing School Sports?

Sports related injuries in schools are not atypical. In fact, the main reason my brother wasn’t allowed to join the middle school football team was my own mother’s fear he’d end up with a back or head injury. While I sympathized with my brother, being forced to grapple with my over-protective mother, it turns out that some of these student athlete injuries are pretty serious. Not only are they pretty serious, but also some student athletes are looking for legal recourse through the federal judiciary. Maybe my mother wasn’t completely off…

This somewhat “new movement” takes root from a legal principle introduced in a tragic case. In Deshaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 1989, a young boy was physically abused by his father and although the Child reported the abuse to social workers and different officials, nothing was done to remove the Child from the Father’s custody. One day, after the reports had been made, Father beat the Child so severely that he ended up in a life-threatening coma. Although the Child survived, he was medically diagnosed as mentally retarded. Child, through his guardian, and Mother filed a §1983 action alleging that the social workers whom the Child had reported the abuse to deprived the Child of his liberty and due process by failing to intervene on his behalf. While the Court dismissed the Child’s claim, the notion of state actors and their responsibilities to the public made its way to the forefront. Importantly, the Supreme Court did not shut the door on bringing a claim against a state actor under § 1983, but left open the possibility that a constitutional violation could occur despite the absence of a special relationship when it stated: “while the state may have been aware of the dangers [Child] faced in the free world, it played no part in their creation, nor did they do anything to render them anymore vulnerable.” Deshaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 1989, Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199 (1996).

Now that the Courts have carved out this rule, it becomes applicable to coaches who ignore sports injuries and push the children to press on in spite of the clear health risks. Very recently, the U.S. District Court dismissed a claim against Downingtown High School for a sports injury that occurred when a girl was playing soccer. While playing, she attempted to head-butt the soccer ball but missed and hit another girl’s head and pummeled to the ground. In spite of the injury the girl was not removed from the field but continued playing and hitting the soccer ball with her head. Two days later, she was diagnosed with brain trauma and brought an action against the School District, the superintendent and the coach. Although the complaint was dismissed, the girl was given an opportunity to amend it. Undoubtedly, the eventual outcome of the case and cases similar to it, may have both positive and negative effects. On the positive side, the students will be safeguarded against potentially serious injuries, but will the potential for liability have a chilling effect and frighten school districts away from implementing contact sports?

If you would like to discuss whether a student athlete you know can seek compensation for injuries sustained while playing a school sport, contact the personal injury attorneys at The Pagano Law Firm and schedule your free consultation.

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